Category: Books

Sunday afternoon, fast and slow

Last gasp of a bad habit

There’s not a more fraught period of time for me each week than Sunday afternoon. It’s 3:37 p.m. as I type, and the sun has finally come out on what was a chilly, gloomy weekend. Sunday afternoons are a time of rising panic, and deepening regret. Where did the weekend go? Why didn’t I have the time of my life? Shouldn’t I have been working in the yard, or going on a 50-mile bike ride, or finishing that overdue library book? And this dread goes back to my youth: a looming pile of unfinished homework, or returning to peers and teachers that I didn’t like very much.

But I think my horror of Sunday afternoons has its deepest roots in college. I remember the fall semester–I think it was junior year. Every Saturday night I’d be out all night drinking. I’d sleep in until noon. Then I’d grab the Sunday edition of The New York Times and stumble down to the commissary in the basement of John Jay Hall. (For the life of me, I can’t remember what that eatery was called.) I’d load up on coffee, eggs and bacon, and whatever else they were serving. I’d take my tray and my newspaper to a table in front of the television. And there I’d sit, Sunday afternoon after Sunday afternoon, reading the Times and watching professional football.

After the games were over, and after I’d trudged through the Times Magazine, the Book Review, the opinion columns, the Travel section, the Sports section, and all the rest, I would go upstairs and step outside in the darkening hours of Sunday. The day was shot, and I hadn’t begun to study. I hadn’t spoken to anyone. I felt very lonely.

So, I don’t exactly remember the moment when I started making changes. I do know that I have not been an avid fan of the NFL since college. Today, while I share some of the pious disdain people have for the crippling spectacle of American football, my revulsion truly stems from recognizing it as a colossal waste of autumnal Sunday afternoons.

It’s 3:50 now. The light is a little softer outside. I am trying to embrace Sunday afternoons as a time of rest and reflection, not an occasion for mounting anxiety and despair. Birds flit about outside my window. I played soccer this morning at Twin Lakes Park. I did some administrative work for Durham Atlético. S.O. has asked what kind of music she should put on. I asked her to put on Philip Glass. (Maybe we’ll catch some of this. Pricey, though.)

The photo at the top of this post shows two pipes I used to own for the purpose of vaping. I threw them away yesterday. It’s another milestone: on Memorial Day Weekend, 2015, I smoked my last tobacco product. I’d been a smoker, on and off, for 27 years. It’s true that I wasn’t a heavy smoker these last few years, but still I puffed, every day, even while getting lots of exercise, improving my diet, and losing weight. My use of tobacco was a crutch, as it is for many, a way to fiddle and stay busy, and find a release for tension and anxiety. I’d quit many times over the years, but I’d always returned to smoking. I didn’t smoke cigarettes so much as cheap cigars and cigarillos, a taste I developed living in New York City in the mid-’90s. In Brooklyn, on Eastern Parkway among the West Indians, I fit right in.

But on Memorial Day Weekend one and half years ago, I decided to give this vaping thing a try. Rather than attack the compulsion to smoke, I decided to change substances. I quickly discovered that I didn’t much care for inhaling the flavored gas that was heated in my pipe, but it was a close enough substitute for smoking tobacco. As unsatisfactory and thin an experience as vaping was, I still had my crutch, and at least I was no longer putting smoke into my lungs.

Six weeks ago, over Thanksgiving, I finally walked away from the crutch of a vape stick. I’d kept my pipes around–just in case–but yesterday I threw them away, just after snapping this photo.

So, I don’t inhale anything besides oxygen and nitrogen, and I don’t drink. I have a lot of thoughts about my past and perhaps future relationship with alcohol, but I’ll save that for another time.

I suppose I feel virtuous, but I also feel a sense of shame. I feel the weight of all those hours lost to lonely–if meditative–intoxication and stimulation. Opportunities I may have missed, money I wasted or didn’t earn, friends I lost or never made.

These habits were things I did instead of doing things. I think back to those nights–night after night–on Eastern Parkway, where I had no social life, no worthwhile job, no money, no girlfriend, no courage, no path forward in the city. In the evenings, after another long day working as a legal assistant for a midtown Manhattan firm, I would go down to the pizza shop on Flatbush Avenue below Grand Army Plaza, grab a greasy slice of sausage-peppers-and-onion. At the bodega I would get a 40-oz bottle of Budweiser and a box of Phillies. Sometimes I sat in the bushes in the center of of the roundabout, out of everyone’s sight. I did this in the rain, in the winter, too.

I am scrambling now, trying to wring the most out of the years that are left to me. It’s easy to rid myself of these crutches when I have things to do that are more important.

Book I read:

Today is the day that the main branch of our local library closes for renovations. Voters passed a $43 million bond back in November, and as a result, the library will be closed for a whopping two years. I have mixed feelings about this. While our library was physically dingy, and socially dispiriting (it was filled every day with homeless people who need a daytime hangout), it’s a pretty decent one nonetheless. The programs aren’t bad, and the book collection is about as good as I think is reasonable to expect.

We have other branches, of course, so I’ll be able to request and check out books during the renovations. All this is preamble to noting that I have held onto an overdue library book for the stupidest reason: I want to refer to it while blogging here.

OK, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It comes freighted with heavy blurbs, like this from the Black Swan himself, Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “This is a landmark book in social thought, in the same league as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.”

That may be a bit much, but Taleb is all about going big or going home. I don’t have a coherent response to the Kahneman’s book, but I did find it a chore to finish. After a while, I felt like the chapters were one parlor trick after another, pulled from the back catalog of a long, distinguished academic career. But boy, there were a lot of nuggets, even if I think they should have constructed a more clear argument.

Here are a few, and this is the purpose of keeping the book around. I wanted to write down a few of these things.

“the world makes much less sense than you think. The coherence comes mostly from the way your mind works.”

Cognitive ease–reduce cognitive strain if you want to write a persuasive message. Use simple language. Put ideas in verse (!).

Halo effects.

Framing effects.

Heuristic questions.

[target] How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?

[heuristic] How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?

Kahneman divides our thinking into System 1 and System 2. The first is the intuitive snap judgment generator. This is the source of our biases, of course. The second is our deeper reasoning. But it’s lazy.

Here are some characteristics of System 1, cribbed from page 105.

  • generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; when endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs attitudes, and intentions
  • can be programmed by System 2 to mobilize attention when a particular pattern is detected (search)
  • links a sense of cognitive ease to illusions of truth, pleasant feelings, and reduced vigilance
  • distinguishes the surprising from the normal
  • infers and invents causes and intentions
  • neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt
  • exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)
  • focuses on existing evidence and ignores absent evidence (WYSIATI)
  • sometimes substitutes an easier question for a difficult one (heuristics)
  • is more sensitive to changes than to states (prospect theory)
  • overweights low probabilities
  • shows diminishing sensitivity to quantity
  • responds more strongly to losses than to gains (loss aversion)
  • frames decision problems narrowly, in isolation from one another

This is all I have time for. I’m going to return this book and pay my fine. It’s 5:26 p.m., and, starting in 34 minutes, the library closes for the next two years. I’m going to miss it.

Movies:

Watched the first three episodes of The Night Manager, based on John LeCarré’s early-’90s novel. The cast (Hugh Laurie, Toms Hiddleston and Hollander, etc) is excellent, but it’s basically a coffeetable tale–like an investigative article in Vanity Fair or something. Glamorous and predictable. Perfectly watchable, though.

Saw the first two episodes of O.J. Simpson: Made in America. It’s every bit as good as advertised. Its director, Ezra Edelman, turns out to be the son of Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman. The former spoke at my college graduation.

OK, off to the library. Then to walk the dog. It’s well past the magic hour outside. It’s getting dark.

UPDATE: Back from the library, where I grabbed a souvenir photo.

One last overdue book. See you in two years.

The book count

I started this blog a few years back partly to begin blogging my way through books and movies.  I recently resumed blogging partly as a way to satisfy the desire to narrate my movements through my life, in an effort to find meaning and dramatic shape to it all. Sometimes I feel a little like that Borges story, the one about making a really accurate map. I want to write it all down, but doing so would leave no time to actually live.

So, for example, I want to write at some length about my FAA knowledge test, how I was stung by a mediocre final exam at ground school, how I vowed to improve at the real exam, and how I did so by dint of six days of concentrated study with the aid of flash cards, and how I scored 57 correct out of 60, but was still left unhappy because two of the questions I missed were on the same petty topic of properly filling out a flight plan, a topic that had not been present in my prep materials.

So I have unlocked the first of three necessary achievements before I will have a private pilot license. A medical exam and a minimum of 40 hours of flight training await.

Book I just finished: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. This much raved-over title by the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist was a curious slog for me. Individual chapters were very interesting, but as a single volume it felt like a string of lectures–greatest hits from a distinguished career–than a coherent argument. But I must say I learned a good deal, not least that in making choices that are intended to enhance our future happiness, we tend to overestimate the pleasure we derive from toys and discount the happiness that is drawn out over time by committing oneself to a hobby, an activity, a skill, a regular source of social interaction.

I hope that by managing to write regularly, I’ll have a feeling of satisfaction years from now, a feeling that I lived an intentional, thoughtful, and examined life.

I would like to write down some terms I learned from this book, but I am getting tired and must do some Spanish before going to bed.

Two movies I saw this weekend

La La Land, with two very charming actors and a slender story. Although I enjoyed the experience of watching it–in the fourth row, no less, where Emma Stone’s teeth seemed 3 feet tall–the magic that was promised was mostly undelivered. There was nothing that took my breath away and made me want to watch again, like in the not dissimilar but far superior Mulholland Dr.

45 Years. Courtenay and Rampling in a movie about an older couple whose 45-year marriage comes completely unglued with the arrival of a letter from overseas. Great, powerful, profound stuff.

YouTube video I watched

Evidently Mariah Carey made a fool of herself on national TV, performing during a New Year’s Eve special. I’ve never been a fan, but I tracked down this very early interview with her. She and I are the same age, and we were in New York City at the same time here, in 1990.

New Year

I didn’t go out last night for New Year’s Eve. If I had, I definitely wouldn’t have run into Antonio Gramsci, especially since he’s dead.

Events like New Year’s Eve are less appealing when one has quit drinking. Besides, I needed to rest up. A big year is ahead.

Never been nobody’s idol

20160619_110334
From a Walmart $5.99 bin. Been in my car ever since.

The year 2016 is probably going to go down as an officially designated “bad year,” not unlike 2001 or 1968 or 1929. Lots of celebrity deaths clustered together, plus an authoritarian reality TV star’s ascension to the United States presidency, will have that effect.

I’ve been meaning to write something thoughtful about deaths that have affected me this year. But I’ve been so damn busy. In keeping with my site’s current motto of “minimum viable product,” I will simply write the following:

Merle Haggard died on April 6, his birthday. To me, his body of work excels Woody Guthrie’s, and in some ways, it rivals Bob Dylan’s. It’s true that Merle never wrote a song like “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But Dylan never hopped freight trains, and Woody’s populism has always struck me as geared more toward middle-class liberals than being a convincing and plaintive affirmation from below, like this number by Merle, one of my favorites.

I discovered Merle Haggard in my early 20s, and I rode him hard through my years as a trucker and construction worker. I managed to see him perform twice, once in New York City’s Tramps in 1997 or so. David Byrne was there, too.

Then, a few years ago, he played on a double bill with Kris Kristofferson at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheater. I remember Merle’s offhanded remark about how he and Kris were two old men singing songs they’d written in their 20s.

I find myself squelching the urge to write an unfinishable essay about Merle. Minimum viable product and all. Look up “Kern River.” His Bakersfield, remembered nostalgically and bitterly, is as richly realized as Springsteen’s Jersey or Van Morrison’s Belfast.

Here’s Merle at the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors with Oprah Winfrey, Bill T. Jones, and… Paul McCartney. The video tribute is very nicely done, but I’d skip the music tributes.

The second celebrity death of the year? A writer who is so modest, graceful, and brilliant that I’m ashamed to be discussing him in terms so vulgar as a “celebrity casualty of 2016.” And besides, he lived to be 88, so his passing is no tragedy, except in the larger sense. His name is William Trevor, one of the greatest living non-famous writers. He’s now a recently deceased non-famous writer, of course.

I was really into William Trevor in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I have The New Yorker to thank for the introduction, and I proceeded to hunt down his other work–novels, novellas, and even his memoir, Excursions in the Real World. I’m no book collector, but his The Collected Stories was the first and only time I’ve noticed or cared that I owned a first edition.

Trevor wrote about ordinary people living humdrum lives in dreary Ireland and drearier England. And his stories are fucking awesome, one after the other. He’s like Maupassant or Chekhov. He sets up his nondescript characters drinking their tea, but somewhere he’s liable to pull a sap from his pocket and knock you out. Sometimes he knocks you out with with unexpected violence in his stories, and sometimes he does it with crushingly unexpected poignancy, as in this description of the aftermath of a nobody character’s death:

A person’s life isn’t orderly …it runs about all over the place, in and out through time. The present’s hardly there; the future doesn’t exist. Only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person’s life.

In the bits and pieces of my own life, as opposed to my imaginary one, two other people died in 2016 who were close to me. They both read at my wedding. One is my wife’s uncle, Stanley Keymer, who lived in Rovaniemi, Finland, with his partner Monna. The other is my mother’s brother, uncle Mark Hogan, who lived in Mystic, Conn. They died one day apart in October. One death came suddenly, the other after years of struggle and revival.

Both of these kindhearted men were veterans: Stanley of the British Navy, Mark of the U.S. Marines. Mark was a teacher and he liked sailing and acting for local theater. Stanley was a social worker and he liked soccer, including Charlton Athletic, the soccer club of his London boyhood, and Rovaniemen Palloseura (RoPS), the soccer club of his adopted hometown.

Here they are, on our wedding day.

photo of Stanley and Mark
Stanley and Mark (photo within the photo by D.L. Anderson)